It seems to be that if you like the finer things in life, and are far enough along to have a lot of the basics taken care of, at some point you will confront the “c” word. As in collecting. As in being a collector. As in having a collection.
I think the first time I was aware of the idea of a collector was when I was living in Hong Kong. I visited the home of a lovely man named Paul Braga, a member of one of the oldest Portuguese families there.
My 7 year old self was awed by a collection of snuff bottles. I had no idea of what they were. What on earth was snuff? I was told. (Yuck, said I, the 7 year old. Why would someone want to stick something up their noses to induce sneezing, I wondered.) And why these fiddly little bottles with their intricate carvings? But I was fascinated, and whenever I could, went back to visit, listening to Mr. Braga’s stories. (He’d forgiven me the “yuck” comment.)
The word “collector” conjures up for me a certain seriousness; of studying and becoming knowledgeable in a subject; of being an adult; of investing, rather than spending; of building a legacy. Sometimes these collectors collect out of true love or a deep intellectual interest or belief in folk art or those snuff bottles…Others start out collecting for love but end up collecting because they’re relentlessly competitive and just must have that piece in their collection (what I call the ‘trading card mentality’); others collect for the financial upside.
Still others are just love with the idea of a collection, of being surrounded with a massing of things that gave them an identity, whether it’s records or Buddhas or Shaker furniture.
Some people are accidental collectors. They fall in love with roosters; with copper pans; with shoe forms; with spools; with vintage tools; with esoteric textiles from ancient hill tribes around the world. The don’t search for them but just seem to find them here and there, or they start getting them for birthdays and Christmas, or just because someone thought they had the perfect person for that obscure thing they came across on holiday. It’s not about scholarship or connoisseurship per se: it’s just something that happened and is now part of them.
And for yet others, collections are about creating a little bit of immortality: you create a collection and it goes on beyond you, will always be associated with you as you become part of its provenance, it’s history, its lore. If you collect enough, you can call what you have a collection. If it’s fine enough, it’s an “important” collection. And if your “important” collection gets big enough, you create a museum and name it after yourself.
Well as far as I’m concerned, the collections that are important are the ones born of love and connection, not ego, a hole in the soul, or competition.
And for some, like Paul Braga, their collections are both born of passion and sufficiently cohesive, beautiful and refined as to be important that it can be auctioned at places like Bonhams. Paul Braga’s snuff bottles fit that category, going on to be auctioned at Bonhams Hong Kong in 2012.
According to the auction catalogue, “The Paul Braga Collection provides a window into old Hong Kong, a bygone age when snuff bottles were displayed in baskets in antique shops and could be bought for several dollars each. Paul Braga was a true connoisseur in an era when little of substance was published on the subject….Using his own eye and experience, he built up his collection and popularized the subject.”
“The Braga family had their roots in Macau, tracing back to 1708, when an ancestor was posted from Lisbon as Chief Justice. The twentieth century was a tumultuous period for them, with fortunes lost and regained. After the Japanese invaded Hong Kong, he escaped with his young family on an epic trek through southern China, eventually hitching a ride from Kunming to India with the ‘Flying Tigers’, the American Volunteer Group who established an air route for supplies to assist the Chinese resistance after the fall of the Burma Road.”
Love. Interest. Connection. Yes, Paul Braga’s collection ticks all boxes.
Most people think that I must be a collector of something. It’s not surprising: I’m a person who does like the finer things, and spend a fair amount of time in the world of craft, art, and design. Plus, I have rather vigorous opinions on what works in a design, or what is beautiful or isn’t.
But it seems to be that there are two types of people: those who are collectors, and those who aren’t. And maybe a third type: a person who wishes they were a collector, but just isn’t. And I am that third person.
I really wish I were a Collector – someone with expert knowledge that goes deep not wide, someone who could muster many decades worth of interest in a single topic, someone who could find something to study, and to be so passionate about as to collect it. I think in particular it’s this piece that I regret. I wish I could muster that passion for something specific, but I can’t. Nothing has spoken to me that way. Nothing beckons. Nothing tugs at my heart or at my soul. There’s nothing I’ve come across that I feel deeply, truly connected to.
I did try, once, most likely in a fit of trying to craft my identity. Years ago, I collected saltcellars: i bought them, friends gave them to me. Then one day I looked at it all and thought, “Dust catchers.” I put them in a box that I carried around from house to house, staring balefully at the cardboard box to which they’d been relegated. And then one day, I just gave most of them away.
There was also that time I found myself in London and actually went into one of the antiques dealers on Cork Street that specialized in snuff bottles. I came close to buying something – anything – so I could say there was something I collected. But I didn’t, thank goodness. These intricate, beautifully carved things were too precious to ever risk being thought of as dust catchers. That snuff bottle needed to be in the hands of someone who’d truly love it, forever.
But I do gather wonderful things that I do care about and love, a good bit of which I’ve inherited. Vintage black and white photography. Silver. Japanese pottery. Maybe vintage cameras? That all feels connected. But love of the category? I don’t have the urge to go deep, to investigate, to expand the inklings of a collection. I define these things but they don’t define me.
Who knows, maybe one day, I will decide to go deep on one of those things: photography feels the most “right” when I think about it. But for now, I’ll focus on living with beautiful, finely crafted things I use everyday, which stir my soul, and which touch me deeply. That’s the only kind of collecting that truly matters.